They come to Kerala from the northern and northeastern states,sometimes even from Bangladesh,and keep ending up in jail or mental hospitals,from where they cannot move out for lack of an understanding of the local language.
In the last six months alone,125 migrant workers from the North and the Northeast have landed in various jails in Kerala. And since 2011,65 workers of Bangladeshi origin have been in jail,mostly for illegal migration. Some of them face charges ranging from murder to theft,but most were arrested for allegedly causing a public nuisance.
Besides,their unfamiliar mannerisms and inability to respond to queries have been known to raise suspicions that they are mentally unsound. Locals have complained and police have picked them up from public places and produced them in courts,which have sent them to mental hospitals.
Many of those arrested are innocent,a fact conceded by additional-director general of police (prisons) Alexander Jacob,who adds the lack of familiarity with the local language means they often find no one to argue their case,while being picked up and in court.
He says a few do get the free service of the state legal services authority,and some get lawyers engaged by their families in their home states. Activists say some advocates take advantage of the families helplessness,taking payment and then not arguing the cases.
Vijaya Stella,whose Scalabrinian Congregation is working among migrants,says she has taken up the cause of 30 migrant workers since January in the district jail in Thiruvananthapuram. I have helped 15 of them get out of jail. A dozen of them were not involved in any crime, she says.
Topas Sarkar,20,of Cooch Behar in West Bengal,was arrested because police suspected he was carrying narcotics in a bus. When I met him in jail in January,Sarkar had been languishing there for three months. Since police had taken his mobile phone,he could not get in touch with his family, she says. Sarkar came out of jail in May and is still working in Kerala.
Five other workers,engaged as cooks at the Sabarimala hill shrine,were arrested in Thiruvananthapuram last year on charges of causing a nuisance in public. They were talking loudly on the street. They stayed in jail for seven months before being granted bail, Stella says.
Of the 65 Bangladeshi migrants,five face criminal cases,and the others charges of staying in India without valid documents,ADGP Jacob says. The 60 could have returned home if their government had intervened, says Jacob.
Through the external affairs ministry,the Kerala government had taken up their plight with the Bangladesh government. A Bangladesh minister visited the workers and confirmed they were Bangladeshi citizens. He promised to take them back,but there has been little follow-up.
Last month,14 from Bangaldesh were released from Kannur central prison,only to be sent back to police custody. The police hope to take them to the Bangladesh border and hand them over to the BSF. We are waiting for sanction from the ministry to deport them. If they are released,they will land again in police custody for staying illegally without valid documents, says a police source.
Police say the Bangladeshi nationals,who entered India through the borders in West Bengal,were ferried to Kerala through agents who also arranged forged identity documents. By monitoring the international telephone calls they make,police identify the Bangladeshis among the migrant workers.
Thottil Shobitha,a social worker at Kozhikode Government Mental Hospital,describes how workers sometimes land in hospital. When surrounded by a crowd in an unfamiliar place,a lonely worker may contradict himself from one moment to the next. Once they reach the mental hospital,their return can involve a long legal process.
Four months ago,a worker from West Bengal was caught by police after he had sought water in a railway station. The 40-year-old tribal,father of four girls,was travelling alone to Kerala. At the station,he repeatedly asked for water but the local people took him for a wandering lunatic and the police acted accordingly.
Shobitha says his family did not have the resources to take him back. Even the West Bengal tribal affairs department has not responded to our alert.
Many of those in mental hospital had either come alone or strayed out of their group,and been found wandering on roads. A few are actually depressed over issues such as their finances.
A 20-year-old from Orissa was referred to the mental hospital because he had smiled in answer to police queries. The youth had Rs 400 with him. When police challenged him at a railway station,he smiled at every question they asked. Police suspected him to be unsound and took to the mental hospital. We had him sent back to Orissa, Shobitha says.